Jessica Norman – Independence Realty Trust Inc.
When Jessica Norman joined Independence Realty Trust in 2013, her early days were focused on supporting the company’s growth—specifically representing the 2-year-old public company in transactional deals to acquire multifamily apartment properties.
Now, as IRT’s executive vice president, general counsel and secretary, Norman’s work benefits the public real estate investment trust across the board: culturally, environmentally and operationally. Of particular note was the company’s transformative M&A deal to acquire Trade Street Residential in 2015. Since then, the company has grown its multifamily portfolio to 58 properties across 18 U.S. cities.
“The goal was to gain necessary scale,” she says. “It reshaped the portfolio, setting us on the path we are on now.”
Laying the groundwork
Founded in 2011 and operating out of Philadelphia and Chicago, IRT owns and manages multifamily apartment properties across non-gateway U.S. markets such as Atlanta, Louisville, Memphis and Raleigh.
Norman is involved in multiple aspects of the business, from helping to shape policies for the day-to-day operations of the apartment complexes to overseeing public stock offerings to fund the company’s acquisitions. As it grew, IRT continued honing its corporate strategy. The reputation IRT wanted to cultivate—through its many properties—was that of a comfortable and affordable place to live; one that “feels like home.”
That meant acquiring Class B properties situated close to employers, shopping centers and good school districts. On-site, many communities offer garden-style apartments with upgrades such as granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. Outdoors, IRT offers amenities such as renovated clubhouses, fitness centers and dog parks.
“We want to deliver value, with above-average amenities and a community-type experience at affordable prices,” she says.
A sustainable approach
With the company’s foundation further solidified, Norman began exploring ESG initiatives.
When she approached IRT’s CEO Scott Schaeffer with the idea of bolstering the company’s environmental, social and governance practices, his response was music to her ears: “Run with it.”
Since then, IRT has embraced the implementation of ESG polices designed to benefit its four key stakeholders: residents, employees, shareholders and the community.
“The fact that I could take something I cared about and marry it with my job is deeply satisfying,” Norman says.
The efforts—which are highlighted on the sustainability page on the company website—focus on IRT’s employees, promoting diversity and inclusion for women and minorities; the environment; and governance practices. First was the development of the IRT Women’s Committee, to better connect women throughout the organization with a formal mentorship program and collegial events.
“Women in the workplace don’t always have access to the same resources as men,” she says. “We wanted to ensure this was not the case at IRT.”
Next were efforts to support minorities.
Norman credits Schaeffer for being the driving force, supporting endeavors to revamp hiring practices and highlight employee diversity within IRT. Compelled by recent protests, he also released a company statement on diversity; initiated a review of the company’s bias and diversity training program; and formed a Diversity and Inclusion Committee tasked with formulating initiatives to ensure a culture of understanding and respect.
“We don’t want to be silent on the matter of diversity; it’s too important,” she says. “We all come from different backgrounds. We must embrace our differences to bring about positive change within our organization.”
Also created was a Sustainability Committee—and, as Norman notes, stakeholders are already seeing a shift to more environmentally friendly practices. Norman is particularly proud of the “IRTree” program, a commitment by IRT to plant a tree for every lease signed. To support the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, 130 IRT employees also pledged to go green by reducing their use of plastic, greening their commute or going meatless on Mondays. The action items are simple things, she says, designed to show that with a little effort we can all make a positive environmental impact.
The success of these proposals—and binding seemingly disparate business areas together under one initiative—allows IRT to improve corporate practices.
“It provides greater transparency and keeps stakeholders informed of important policies,” Norman says. “It is entirely attributable to company-wide support and collaboration.”
Creation amidst COVID-19
With all-encompassing concerns stemming from the pandemic, IRT executives met regularly to adapt to concerns amidst the changing landscape. The surprise was the new opportunities for its stakeholders created by the crisis.
A chief concern highlighted was the need for housing.
“Having a place to call home is a necessity,” Norman says.
Immediately after the outbreak, leasing offices and common areas were temporarily closed to the public and corporate employees shifted to working remotely. IRT implemented new business practices to address health concerns, including pushing paperless payments; providing scheduled amenity times to allow for social distancing; and improving the quality and availability of virtual lease tours. IRT also recognized the financial hardship for residents and established payment plans to defer rent for those impacted by COVID-19.
“The pandemic is compounding the housing crisis in our country,” she says. “At IRT, we are committed to providing our residents with the highest quality communities and excellence in service while keeping our employees as healthy as possible.”
Knowledge is power
Very early in her career, Norman had to define how to help herself out during a time of crisis. Turmoil fueled a growth mindset, and she found a way to advance her career under adverse conditions.
After earning a JD and MBA at Temple University, Norman was working her first job within the finance and real estate group at Dechert LLP when the bottom dropped out of the residential real estate market in the 2008 financial crisis. There, she saw firsthand, how a market shift could affect even her most established colleagues.
“I realized quickly that life is unpredictable,” she says. “I made a point to diversify my experience so I was prepared when life got in the way of my plans.”
Norman never looked back. Joining the smaller firm of Klehr Harrison next, she gained skills across a spectrum of real estate matters: sales, leasing, development, and financing transactions—just to name a few. She further broadened her experience at Drinker Biddle & Reath (now Faegre Drinker) and later as vice president and corporate counsel for RAIT Financial Trust.
Years later, even during a pandemic, Norman remains unafraid to tackle something new—in fact, it’s become her passion inside and outside the office. As her career at IRT progressed, so did her yoga practice, which helped to keep her balanced. When the pandemic closed yoga studios, she took up horseback riding because she knew it would cultivate mindfulness and equanimity during a time of crisis.
“Next up is sailing,” she says. “My family expressed an interest and I want to teach my two young boys to embrace challenges as they expand their horizons.”
Showcase your feature on your website with a custom “As Featured in Vanguard” badge that links directly to your article!
Copy and paste this script into your page coding (ideally right before the closing